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Michel Barnier relieved! The Brexit negotiator returns to the French political scene

(B2 - archives) For more than four years the European negotiator for Brexit, the Savoyard has just celebrated his 70th birthday. And he intends to be present in French political life now, after 20 years in Brussels.

Michel Barnier watching out of the corner of his eye the signature by Charles Michel (European Council) and Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission) of his work, the Brexit Treaty (Photo: Consilium - Archives B2 January 2020)

A busy life

Michel Barnier already has a full life at the national level when he emerges at the European level. His first elective mandate, he acquired it at the age of 22, in Savoy, as general councilor for the canton of Bourg Saint-Maurice. President of the department for 17 years from 1982 to 1999, he represented it on the benches of the Assembly. His position as co-organizer of the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, alongside ski champion Jean-Claude Killy, made him known to the general public. Minister of the Environment in the Balladur government then of European Affairs under Jacques Chirac, it was in 1999 that he flourished at the European level. The big man with blue eyes is propelled to the European Commission in charge of regional policy. Discreet but essential position. With a budget of several tens of billions of euros, it is the privileged contact for all the regions of Europe. How to build strong relationships. He is also one of the negotiators of the European Convention charged, under the leadership of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, with concocting the text of the European Constitution (which later became the Treaty of Lisbon). In particular, he chairs one of the working groups responsible for developing crisis management and European defence. What seemed like a fad then has become a priority today.

Vision for the future

Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2004, he paid the price for the failure in 2005 of the referendum on the Constitution decided by President Chirac, but he was very quickly overtaken by the European virus. In 2006, commissioned by his European peers, he proposed the creation of a "force european civil protection ". We must urgently work on a few crisis scenarios, terrorism and pandemics, he pleads. His report, visionary, is overshadowed by the financial crisis. But reality will prove him right. After two years in the Fillon government as Minister of Agriculture, he returned to Brussels, as European Commissioner in charge of the Internal Market. A key position that offers him a thousand contacts. Contacts that served him well at the time of Brexit. With financial services, faced with hostility from the City, " I got to know the British ". He is also in charge of the institutional reform ". He will thus be one of the representatives of the European Commission at the European Convention, chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and responsible for concocting a new draft treaty. In particular, he chairs one of the working groups responsible for developing crisis management and European defence. His fad. The draft 'European Constitution' will not receive approval in France and the Netherlands. The text will however be reborn, almost intact, in the form of the Treaty of Lisbon. And his ideas worked on for several years find themselves anchored in the grace of the Treatise.

The time for rebuffs

One could believe in a journey without pitfalls. Error. Michel Barnier suffered several rebuffs. In 2014, he applied for the role of leader of the European People's Party for the European elections, the royal road to the office of President of the European Commission. Magnifying glass. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is elected. He is then cited to occupy the post of head of European diplomacy. A job he dreams of. But France, under the Hollande presidency, wants neither the post nor the man. The spirited Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi puts all his weight in the balance to impose his candidate, Federica Mogherini. Bis repetita five years later. He hopes to be able to preside over the European Commission. The ace. President Emmanuel Macron has other plans: the European Central Bank for Christine Lagarde and a tailor-made portfolio at the European Commission for one of his relatives, Sylvie Goulard, replaced at the last moment by Thierry Breton. Wounded, Michel doesn't let it show and takes the necklace back. Imperturbable. In early 2015, he became special adviser to Jean-Claude Juncker, in charge of European defence. Position of influence. From his office lost in the depths of the Berlaymont, he prepares the rise of this new skill. Is right. Today, a general directorate (ministry) has been created within the European Commission responsible for managing a fund endowed with 8 billion euros over seven years (about 1,2 billion euros per year).

Consecration by the British

The No of the British to the European Union, in June 2016, sounds like a thunderclap. The news of Brexit saddens him. But never, ever, will he have one word more than the other about the British. " It is a decision, sovereign, free. Take the time to understand he explains to us. This is a formidable challenge for Europe and for the person concerned. Michel Barnier is appointed chief European negotiator for Brexit. A tricky post. But the Frenchman pulls out of the game. His friendliness and politeness, rarely faulted, his method of involving everyone, his brilliant and efficient team, are essential. In such a tense negotiation, he you have to keep your nerves, not place the emotion above the political stakes, he tells us. That turns out well. " I am of a placid temperament.

Say the same thing to everyone

His method can be summed up in one word: transparency ". " Say the same thing to everyone at the same time. At each negotiation, a manager from his team thus reports in near real time to all the ambassadors of the '27', who pass on the information to their capital. No one is left by the wayside. Between two rounds of negotiation, the Savoyard takes his pilgrim stick. He visits all the capitals, listens to everyone, from governments to academics and parliamentarians. This way of doing things, humble, very Nordic, pays off.

A united bloc despite attempts to divide it

The European bloc, otherwise so divided, remains united until the end. One of his great prides. The last weeks of negotiations are however “testing”. Next to " six intensive weekends and exhausting. When on Christmas Eve the deal is sealed, Barnier is therefore " relieved ". He is not the only one ! " Sad to see the United Kingdom leave the Union. But happy to turn the page of a period " intense ". Ready for other adventures.

A hexagonal future

This Gaullist at heart, who has never left his political family (from the UDR or RPR to the Republicans), despite all the avatars it has undergone, does not intend to remain inactive. " I am available for my political family "he says the evening of the end of negotiations on France 2. " I miss france he confirms on his 70th birthday, January 9. " I have always been a politician. As long as I have energy, I will act there I can be useful ". The advances of the Macron team do not tempt him. He prefers to stay loyal to his ideal of 14 years.

Loyalty to the Republican right pegged to the body

It gives me a legitimacy he says. Does he see a role in the presidential election in 2022? He doesn't mean anything. But he is seriously thinking about it. " Where there is a will, there is a way he tweets, as a New Year's wish. And, next to Joe Biden, elected at 78, he is still a youngest. He is not the favourite. And there are people on the right who want to go to coal. But he intends to pull out of the game.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Published in a first version for Sud-Ouest lth January 11, 2021

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).